This is the first in a series of guest posts from Michelle.
Michelle Lehnardt never folds laundry and her car is a mess. She runs through the streets of Salt Lake City, UT, takes lots of photos, plays Uno with her 5 fabulous boys and buys way too many dresses for the little princess. Her husband is the most romantic man in the world because he does all the Costco shopping AND hauls it into the house (sorry to make you jealous girls). She writes at Scenes from the Wild.

In California, I took a few portraits (sadly, not the family beach photos we’d hoped for) of my sister Ruth and her kids. “Soooooo,” she asked, “are you going to make a business of this?”

“Not yet.” I answered. “Right now I’m like a contestant on American Idol; my family and friends have told me how great I am. But once I get out there and really try to perform my inexperience is going to show. But yes, eventually, I’d like to do that.”

“Good.” Ruth paused long and pensively. “But don’t start a business or write a novel just to feel like you are an OK person. You are already OK. You are already enough.”

Unbidden tears sprang to my eyes. My 16 year old had expressed a similar concern weeks ago, “Isn’t being MY mom enough?”

Yes and no.

Once we get past the hazy, crazy baby stage most mommies I know need something more. For some it is something that directly applies to homemaking: cooking, parties, a spotless house, home decor, gardening, scrapbooking— and for others it is something else: school, art, charity work, sports, church and/or a full career.

Many of my friend’s blogs are contemplative right now (it must be the end of summer), “How much time can I take for me?” “What is success?” and I was frankly surprised to see the author of a photography blog I stalk mourn her 29th birthday (so young!) and the fact that she isn’t married with children. I would have thought running a camera bag business, traveling the world and being paid $15K just to bring her camera to your wedding would be enough. Maybe we’re all confused.

American women simply have so many options. If we were mothers struggling to feed our children in Africa we’d be happy with just a warm meal. But in our society that is constantly spotlighting superwomen who have babies, a career and manage to feed the children in Africa it’s hard to feel like tackling the laundry and getting spaghetti on the table is truly an accomplishment.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly believe in the virtue of motherhood, but I also believe we can’t judge each other by how we choose to spend our time. My amazing friend Chelle is the PTA President at her local elementary this fall. Chelle is organized, intelligent and a natural leader. All four of her children are at the elementary this year which makes it an ideal season for her to serve the school. But upon her election, an acquaintance said to Chelle, “Oh, I would never be PTA President. I simply won’t take that much time away from my children.”

How unfair! If a mother isn’t the PTA president who will do the job? Someone’s grandma? A single girl in the neighborhood? If I need a doctor or a lawyer or someone to help me pick out new makeup I’m going to call upon a woman– I’m grateful they have honed their talents for my benefit.

Nothing is quite as delicious as snuggling with my little ones. But since they won’t sit on my lap ALL day, I’m not going to stop taking photos or writing. I have an insatiable desire to get better at both. It’s doubtful that I’ll make a career of either one anytime soon and you my dear friends will continue to be the hapless victims of my learning curve.

Hopefully I’m not using writing or photography or motherhood as the measure of my self-worth. I tell my kids that I loved them the moment they were born; I love them just for showing up. Maybe it’s time I tell myself the same thing.

So how do you do it my friends? How do you balance your own pursuits and your family? What do we choose in this beautiful life?

27 Comments

  1. Maralise

    August 12, 2008

    This is a lovely post and timely as school is starting for many of us. My favorite therapist introduced me to the concept of worth staying the same throughout our lives, that we can’t argue that a baby is less valuable than someone who can accomplish more (has more schooling/makes more money) or that an aged person is less valuable because they are past their working years. I love love love the concept of being inherently valuable no matter the age or stage.

    But, at the same time, happiness is often a product of enlightened engagement (seems like ‘englightened engagement’ epitomizes the church and our engagement with it) which requires that many of us DO something to feel that we’re filling the measure of our creation.

    This is a struggle that I wake up with every morning and go to bed with every night: knowing how to balance activity with peaceful rest, knowing how to feel that what I do is enough.

  2. cheryl

    August 12, 2008

    Wow! This morning I was chatting with my walking friend about how I mourn the “what could have been’s” in my life and she said: “If you still want that (the thing I was talking about), you can still have it, you know.”

    And she’s right. I may not be able to have it now, or in 5 years, but if it’s something I really want, then I know I can pursue it later in my life.

    Balancing motherhood, wifehood, church callings, talents, interests, work, and obligations are difficult, it’s true. Add in some “wants” and it’s even harder! At this point in my life, I can’t imagine adding more things to the list, but I also can’t imagine not wanting to add those things to the list. You know what I mean? I think we all have desires (talents, if you will) of who we want to become, but it’s a time and season thing. For example, I can write 10 minutes a day on the next Great Novel, and teach 9 piano students, but I can’t add in much more than that; volunteer work? It’s not gonna happen with four children under 8 years old. But when my kids are older? I can volunteer and go back to school. And finally learn how to plant something that doesn’t die. I’m looking forward to that time, but I know if I gloss over the now time, I’ll miss this, too.

    Sorry for the rambling (if any of it made any sense). This has been on my mind a lot lately…

  3. eljee

    August 12, 2008

    I’ve been all over the place with this topic. I got a master’s degree in music, but never really planned for how it would be incorporated into my life. We were infertile and childless for the first seven years of our marriage. I had prime time during this period to pursue my career as much as I wanted, but I was so consumed with wanting to become a mother that my music fell completely by the wayside. I was paralyzed in a way from doing anything about it. I could have regrets, but I know that things are what they are. There is no sense in pining over what might have been.

    I never, ever thought that as a mother, I would struggle with wanting to balance parenthood with my music. After so many years of longing for motherhood, I honestly thought it would fill every need I had. I was shocked to find out that this was not the case. During my first few years of motherhood, I had many moments of feeling inadequacy almost to the point of despair when I thought of my master’s degree and what I thought I had lost. It took me a few years to realize that it was not all over–I could get back on track and still have goals and dreams with my music. I would have to start over again in some areas. I was not at the level I had been when I graduated. But all was not lost.

    So I started having goals and dreams again. I created a 10-year-plan for some of the things I wanted to do. Even though I’m an organist, I started teaching piano simply because it was something I could do–it was a foot in the door.

    Balance is an interesting thing. There are seasons to our lives. When I started teaching piano, it was absolutely the right decision. Now, three years later, I am planning to quit. My family circumstances have changed to the point where I know things are out-of-balance. But I have new goals in place of teaching piano.

    I had a conversation over a year ago with a female musician whose children were raised. I asked her how she had balanced it all when she had young children. She gave me some great insights. She first pointed out that these years of young children won’t last forever. She also pointed out the apparent conflicts between the counsel to get an education and the reality of changing diapers and doind dishes. But she pointed out that my education–and our talents, whatever they may be–are not actually hindrances just to make us miserable when we can’t be pursuing them. They give us things to look forward to, dreams to dream for the future. I had never looked at it in a “cup half full” sort of a way.

    The biggest insight she gave me, though, was that I was asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, “How do I fit all this stuff into my life?”, I needed to be asking, “What would the Lord have me do with these gifts He was given me?” When I asked that question, virtually all inner conflict went away! Music and motherhood don’t compete against each other when we take it down to the fundmental level of “What would the Lord have me do at this particular time in my life?”

    I think the answers are different for each woman. My sister-in-law teaches 35 piano students, mother 4 kids of her own, and is very active in her local school. I could not handle her life. I would be stressed all the time, and I would not be comfortable with my kids being on their own as much as hers are. But there is no doubt she is a better mother because of how energized she feels from her activities. I have seen her when she didn’t have that, and I’ve seen the depression and stagnancy she experienced.

    I have had to realize that what I’m doing is OK. I don’t have to compare myself to friends who are doing more.

    As I’ve made small goals and tried to follow the spirit, I’ve been given opportunities in the past year or so that were beyond what I ever envisioned.

    I do feel a constant whispering to be careful. There is a fine line between seeking these things as a response to the call of the spirit, and going beyond the mark as a response to the call of the world. I wholeheartedly agree with the counsel of leaders such as Sister Beck, whom I heard at Women’s conference pleading again to put our children first and to be careful not to be involved in so many other things that our families suffer.

  4. Sue

    August 12, 2008

    Wait, we’re supposed to BALANCE?

    CRAP.

  5. mormonhermitmom

    August 12, 2008

    A visiting teacher one told me she hoped that she could keep some of her talents on hold while she was a mom, because she didn’t have time to develop more while her kids were growing up. I sure hope that’s true. I hope Heavenly Father doesn’t think I’m “burying my talent” for now.

  6. Chelle

    August 12, 2008

    eljee, I loved your comment. There was a lot that I could relate to.

    Michelle – your writing, your thoughts, your friendship — all such a gift to me. (and thanks for sticking up for me!)

  7. ceejay

    August 12, 2008

    eljee: Buried in your insightful comments is the judgment that all of us fall into when we start looking at other’s parenting styles. It is the backhanded dig I get all the time that starts out with what she does is great but I …. Here’s your version: “I would be stressed all the time, and I would not be comfortable with my kids being on their own as much as hers are.”

    I hear it in various forms all the time and it drives me crazy.

  8. eljee

    August 12, 2008

    Ceejay, I’m not really sure how to respond to your comment. Saying that I would be stressed all the time is not a judgment of her choices or style. It’s simply a comment about our differences. She’s an extrovert who thrives on being busy–the more projects she has going, the happier she is. I’m an introvert who needs “down-time” to regroup and feel sane. When I take on too much (which sometimes happen in the process of learning to be assertive and say no), I do feel stressed and frazzled. For me, this has been an important realization in my own process of trying NOT to compare myself to other people.

    As far as my comment about her children being on their own, I suppose it is a judgment. I certainly didn’t intend it as a “dig” or a criticism. But it is a statement about choices. I don’t see how we can ever completely avoid making judgments, or none of us would ever have anything to say! My sister-in-law gives her children time and attention in other ways. She volunteers at their schools. She spends time and energy making sure they have certain opportunities. She is passionate about reading with them. But we simply have different choices about what to do with the 3 hours a day when school is out prior to dinner time. I never said that her choice was wrong for her, just that it would not work for me. I would not be comfortable having my kids be unsupervised for that length of time while I taught piano. (FWIW, my kids are much younger than hers are.) Is that a judgment? Sure. To make that choice, and to state it publicly, is a judgment. Is it a “dig”? I don’t think so.

  9. Heathermommy

    August 12, 2008

    Was Eljee’s comment a hidden judgement or just an awarenss that everyone is different. It is okay for her to realize that her friend’s choices would not work for her. I don’t think that is a negative judgement. It is a judgement that each of us need to make for ourselves. We need to judge what is best for us and our families.

    I love what someone once said on this blog: There is a principle and a practice. I think we are all trying to apply the same principles: importance of family, developing talents, balance, etc. How we practice these principles in our lives will look different and it is okay to acknowledge the differences.

  10. Heathermommy

    August 12, 2008

    I think sadly we feel we have to justify our choices to other people. Whether it be the choice to work/not work, homeschool, etc. I homeschool and I am constantly having to defend my choices to others or others feel like they have to defend their choice to not homeschool.
    It’s sad.

    I have a masters degree and sometimes I teach university classes. When I do it is one night a week and very flexible. But still I feel like it puts me under stress and I can see the negative effects it has on my family sometimes. So now that I have taken a hiatus I can sometimes feel like there is something wrong with me that I can’t handle more. I think we do a disservice to ourselves and eachother when we have these expectations of having “it all”. We can’t. Something always gives.

  11. shelah

    August 12, 2008

    I feel a little bit like I’m going through a third-of-life crisis. For me, I think it’s because my DH’s career is just starting, and he’s getting excited and geared up for several decades of productivity. On the other hand, the thing I’ve been productive at for the last decade (making and nursing babies) is winding down. And I don’t know what I’m going to do next. It scares me. I love my kids and want to be around for them on a meaningful day-to-day basis, but on the other hand, it often feels like it’s not enough. Over the next year we’re going through a big move and our lives will change again, and I’m really curious (and nervous, I guess) for what’s going to happen when we come out on the other side.

    I’ve made no secret of the fact that I want another baby, a baby which we probably won’t end up having. But when I’m being really honest with myself, I wonder if I’m most eager to have a baby just so I can delay the question of what I’m going to do with the rest of my life… I already know that I can handle this stage– it’s what comes next that I’m scared of.

  12. m&m

    August 12, 2008

    I am working really hard in my life to come to believe that I am enough because “I am a child of God.” I am not what I do. I have worth because the worth of souls is great.

    As a corollary, that means others are enough because they are children of God, too.

    Of course, we are here to progress and do, too, and yes, that is hard for me to sift through. But that process of progress is SO individual, and there simply isn’t a formula we can plug and chug ourselves or anyone else through.

    There is one paragraph of the original post that made me stop and remember a talk I went to, addressed to college-aged young women, where the guy basically said, “If my wife didn’t teach, who would teach the kids at school?” I don’t particularly care for that kind of reasoning. Sure, I am grateful for my kids’ teachers and all, but if they decided not to teach, we would figure something out. I don’t think we should make decisions (or expect others to) because of ‘who else will do it?’ (except maybe relative to our own children). We should make decisions because it is right for us. That probably goes without saying, but I wanted to say it anyway. I wouldn’t want my PTA president or my doctor or my whatever to be doing something that isn’t really right for HER. Does that thought make sense? It would be really easy for any of us to take on obligations because of the need ‘out there’ rather than considering what the Right thing to do for our families is. And I think as women sometimes we can get ourselves into trouble if we do things just because there is a need. There will always be needs ‘out there,’ but it won’t always be right to fill them.

    Maybe I write that because I am, by nature, a people-pleaser, and I have made too many decisions based on what needs were ‘out there’ and have sometimes not tuned into my family’s needs, or even my own. Balance is the key, no?

    That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ever pursue passions and talents. Elder Ballard said as much.

    Third, even as you try to cut out the extra commitments, sisters, find some time for yourself to cultivate your gifts and interests. Pick one or two things that you would like to learn or do that will enrich your life, and make time for them. Water cannot be drawn from an empty well, and if you are not setting aside a little time for what replenishes you, you will have less and less to give to others, even to your children. … [And here’s the key} Turn to the Lord in faith, and you will know what to do and how to do it.

    I think the key to life really is balance, and the key to finding that is the Spirit. And that means it will look different for each of us. I don’t need to look sideways to figure out what is Right, except maybe to study options out in my mind. In the end, what I need to do is look upward.

  13. Angela

    August 12, 2008

    Okay, here I am again with my quotes. But I taught a RS lesson two Sundays ago on this very topic. I’m in the RS presidency and our 1st Sunday of the Month lessons this year are focused on President Hinckley’s “Be’s.” I got to teach “Be True,” and we spent a lot of time discussing what it means to be “true to yourself,” or to simply “be yourself.” Here are some quotes I found meaningful:

    First, on the question of “Am I enough as I am?”, here’s a great thought by Elder Bruce C. Hafen:

    “I am addressing primarily a need for perspective. I do not mean to diminish the value of serious commitments to personal achievement and responsibility. The willingness to strive and keep striving is at the heart of [the scriptures’] message to us. But the striving must be to find out God and to accept fully the experiences he knows will enlarge our souls. The trouble with modern pursuits of excellence is that they can become a striving to please other people, or at least to impress them or to seek their approval. A desire for such approval is not all bad, especially among Church members, who generally reserve their approval for accomplishments having positive value. But other people are not finally our judge, and making too much of either the affirmative or the adverse judgments of others can actually undermine our relationship with God and our development of sound values.”

    I think most of us (myself included) feel pressure to “do” something show-offable. Something we can hang on our wall and prove that we’re developing our talents or contributing to the larger society. And while it IS important to develop our talents and have meaningful outlets in our lives if we feel a pure and intrinsic desire to do so . . . how often is our motivation to do these things not necessarily because we *want* to, but because we feel we should or must in order to be acceptable to others? I guess for me it’s an issue of being in touch with the spirit and with myself. Although I think others would be impressed if I decided to train for a marathon, it’s not what *I* want to do. And, usually, when I write, it’s because it’s what I want to do, not because I think the act of doing it will make me somehow more worthy as a person.

    Okay, and one more quote. Sorry this is so long. But it’s a good one by Terry Warner, the LDS author of _The Bonds that Make Us Free_:

    “Ask yourself, Who is the person I really need to be? A being who can come into existence only by determined, gritty effort? I think on reflection you will answer, No, the person I need to be is who I am already — or more accurately who I will be if I cease trying to display myself as worthy and acceptable and thus make myself into a grotesque distortion of who I really am. If this is how you answer, you like many others intuitively agree that we become most ourselves, without distortion, when we relax our frantic effort to justify ourselves and allow ourselves simply to be still. Still is just the right way to be.”

    That’s a good one, too. I think one of the hardest thins for me to do is to live in the present. Not in the past (the what-ifs, the missed opportunities), not in the future (the “I will be happy when’s,” the “I’m afraid this might happen’s”), but today. Focus on being myself *today*, not on building myself into who I think I ought to be in some future tomorrow. It’s hard in such a goal-oriented culture to realize the joy of living in the moment, but when I can wrap my brain around the concept, it really helps in my decision making and in my overall level of personal peace.

  14. jendoop

    August 12, 2008

    In reading the comments I had a novel thought- What about looking to our Heavenly Father as an example? He has created a world full of beauty but the beauty does not overwhelm the usefulness of the world. Or vice versa. He is an example of balance and wholeness.

    We could even look to Christ’s example also. He didn’t have a ministry that lasted 33 years, he lived 30 and then began his ministry. Although we don’t know much of what happened in the first 30 years, none of us would say those years were worthless because he wasn’t ministering to the multitudes. My mind spins as I think about how well Christ can empathize with us on these issues.

    I have often felt the blessing of laying aside my talents (not burying them) for a season. Despite not sketching daily or painting for months at a time I was able to paint a portrait of my friend’s baby who died too early in life, make a banner for the RS celebration, and do craft projects with the kids. I will have all of eternity to create but only now to mother children. That is part of the divine sacrifice of motherhood.

  15. wndy

    August 12, 2008

    Michelle, this was beautiful! This is the essay I have thought through and never quite composed as well as you have.

    A while before I became a mom (last year), I noticed many of my friends and relatives searching for something “other than motherhood.” It really puzzled me, as we were struggling with fertility issues for nearly seven years, preceded by my longing for marriage for 15 years . . . nearly 22 years of dreaming of motherhood and it’s joys and wonders . . . so I couldn’t imagine needing something OUTSIDE of motherhood. Ever.

    I know I was critical of some of my friends’ choices at first. But I loved and respected these good, grounded women so much that I had to back off and think through things more realistically. I get it now. And I love how you and others describe the balance/time-and-season/we’re-all-different aspects of this.

    I burned out with my career enough that I have no desires to return to the working world (though that may change someday). I’m really engrossed in the new-mommy stage, but I know I need “me” time still. Reading before I nap is wonderful. Lunches with friends, phone conversations and walks are good. Blogging and journaling are, too, but those take away from my sleep time, so I have to be careful. I don’t think I have a good balance yet, and I’m not sure what to do to feel a little more sane. Taking on something new doesn’t seem to be the answer. Hiring a sitter for a few hours a week just might. Or Merry Maids (which I NEVER thought I’d consider).

    I wonder how my desires will change over the years. I am much more open and flexible about it than I used to be, which I think is crucial, if I’m going to be happy and have peace.

  16. m&m

    August 12, 2008

    I will have all of eternity to create but only now to mother children. That is part of the divine sacrifice of motherhood.

    I love this.

    I think also, as we reflect on WHY Father has created, or WHY the Savior did what He did–it was for the whole Moses 1:39. He does things not just for creation’s sake, but for OUR sake. His creation is built around His eternal goals.

    I think, however, that it’s one thing to ponder how and why Heavenly Father does things, and try to translate that correctly in my life! Again, only the Spirit can really help me figure out the specifics, to really figure out how to be more like Him today, now, and day by day into forever.

  17. michelle

    August 12, 2008

    Oh my. I have simply LOVED reading through your thoughtful comments. I’m trying the concept of “enlightened engagement,” to listen to that “constant whispering to be careful” and to remember that “I have worth because the worth of souls is great.”

    Shelah, I too wonder if my desire for another baby is simply to delay the next stage of life. And Angela– your quotes are fantastic! I think I’m in love with the Segullah community.

    Especially intriguing(to me!) are those that gained an education and career before motherhood. I got pregnant two minutes(OK, maybe 6 hours) after graduating from BYU and always wondered if I’d be a more confident mother if I’d done something else first. It’s interesting to see that your feelings are still similar to mine.

    Elder Ballard’s advice was fabulous. Don’t you think the church is getting so much better at addressing these issues? Thanks for bringing that up m&m.

  18. annegb

    August 12, 2008

    I would never be the PTA president because it sounds like a yucky and not fun thing to do. I do strive to hear and follow the spirit, but avoid goals. I get a stomach ache when people talk about goals.

    This is a worthy post, Michelle, and I’ve experienced some of your frustration when women refuse to leave their children for anything.

    However, I celebrate those who enjoy doing nothing. It’s okay to just be…..

  19. Dalene

    August 12, 2008

    I too have enjoyed this post and the discussion. I’ve contemplated my state of “not enough-ness” and the struggle between “to be” and “to do” quite a bit over the years, so the subject resonates with me. It’s important to find our worth in both because otherwise what will we do when things happen (this is something I learned when a major surgery laid me up for a while) when we can’t do those things we thought made us valuable. Do we cease to be of value then?

    shelah and michelle–I hope you both love “the next stage” as much as I am loving it. I’m tired, but I’m loving it!

  20. Migs

    August 12, 2008

    I just read a wonderful talk by President Hunter about True Greatness. Here’s a quote from it that I love:

    In a short editorial written by President Joseph F. Smith in 1905, he made this most profound statement about what true greatness really is:

    “Those things which we call extraordinary, remarkable, or unusual may make history, but they do not make real life.

    “After all, to do well those things which God ordained to be the common lot of all mankind, is the truest greatness. To be a successful father or a successful mother is greater than to be a successful general or a successful statesman.” (Juvenile Instructor, 15 Dec. 1905, p. 752.)

  21. m&m

    August 12, 2008

    Migs,
    Just have to say that that quote from Pres. Smith is one of my all-time favorites. Thanks for sharing here.

  22. Brooke

    August 12, 2008

    oh annegb, i love you.

  23. Heathermommy

    August 12, 2008

    angela

    Thanks so much for those quotes. I needed those today.

  24. Anna

    August 13, 2008

    This gets even more complicated when you’re a single mom.

  25. Maralise

    August 13, 2008

    anngegb–missed you!

  26. jendoop

    August 13, 2008

    My post from yesturday has been haunting me. It was true yesturday, today I feel differently. This mom thing is so hard. One day is good and the next not good. One day rewarding and the next boring. God bless every one for even getting out of bed in the morning.

    The quote by Joseph F. Smith was great and leads me to ask- then why all those super-human Ensign examples? Expectations take the wind out of my sails.

    Anna, I can’t even comprehend how difficult being a single mom is, WOW.

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